One day, my Mum browsed on Amazon, looking for the series 4 DVD box set of Murder, She Wrote. Innocent enough right? However, mere minutes after having made her purchase, all she saw were Amazon adverts for Murder, She Wrote. A couple of days later she received a couple of emails about it and promoting other shows like Columbo. She asked me, “Why are all these adverts popping up? I already bought the DVD.” I replied, “Because Amazon sees all that you do, what you want but don’t necessarily need.” Her eyes widened at me. My Mum, who grew up on vinyl’s and monochrome television now had a mobile phone that was more powerful than a computers that sent us to the moon in the 1960’s.
“That’s scary hun.”
“Well, that’s how it is now Mum. We must bow to our corporate overlords.”
She raises her eyebrows at me, “Don’t be so facetious.”
Discussions about the explosion of information, the use of social media and the interconnectedness of everything are ubiquitous. Conferences, studies, newspaper articles ask questions about our data, privacy and the positive and negative aspects; the coverage itself is an explosion of information itself!
Of course, the main question on people’s minds is if our information is safe with these companies or just how much they have. I read an article in The Guardian about a journalist named Judith Duportail, who requested all the data that Tinder had on her account. Even though the data concerned Duportail’s personal life, it took a human rights lawyer and the co-founder of PersonalData.IO to secure it. They sent her 800 pages. It makes you wonder, what are these companies doing with your information if they make it increasingly difficult for the average person to access it?
I can only imagine what would happen if I asked Facebook for the same thing; I’ve been on there since 2009 starting from my last years at sixth form to university to working life. Even for someone like me who posts sporadically there’s probably a lot of information about my personal life and interests.
Recently, I got a notification from Google Maps, detailing where I’d visited this month and whether I’d recommend those places to anyone else. It was rather disconcerting to see that the app had been keeping consistent track of my favourite hangouts.
With the advent of Wi-Fi and social media, it is easier than ever to access and give out information. Being able to connect with someone on the other side of the planet or read a developing news story in real time on a hand held device is something we hadn’t thought was possible 20 years ago.
It can be argued that having all this information at our fingertips makes us more tolerant and more likely to be open to different points of view. Or it can have the opposite effect. Your timelines and news feeds can create a bubble which is hard to break when social media platforms use algorithms that they don’t explain. The effects on this ease of access to information on our mental health and impact of our society will be debated for the foreseeable future because there are no easy answers.
Maybe its up to the heads of these multi-billion industries take necessary action; to make their algorithms and processes clearer. Or maybe its up to us to use caution when dealing with these technologies. We aren’t looking this from a historical point of view, we are living creatures navigating our way through this new era of information, trying to find the best way to utilise our resources. This is why Information Professionals are crucial. By working our way through these difficult questions, we can empower people to make informed decisions about how they share their information and remind us all of our status as individuals rather than numbers.
Duportail, J (2017) I asked Tinder for my data. It sent me 800 pages of my deepest darkest secrets. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/sep/26/tinder-personal-data-dating-app-messages-hacked-sold (Accessed 15th October 2017)
Eslami, M., Rickman, A., Vaccaro, K., Aleyasen, A., Vuong, A., Karahalios, K., Hamilton, K., and Sandvig, C. (2015). “I always assumed that I wasn’t really that close to [her]:” Reasoning about invisible algorithms in the news feed. Proceedings of the 33rd Annual SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, Association for Computing Machinery (ACM): 153-162.